NOVA SCOTIA HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Department of Labour and Advanced Education
Office of the Fire Marshal
Printed and Published by Nova Scotia Hansard Reporting Services
Public Accounts Committee
Ms. Diana Whalen, Chairman
Mr. Howard Epstein, Vice-Chairman
Mr. Clarrie MacKinnon
Mr. Gary Ramey
Mr. Mat Whynott
Mr. Brian Skabar
Hon. Keith Colwell
Mr. Chuck Porter
Mr. Allan MacMaster
[Mr. Gary Burrill replaced Mr. Brian Skabar]
Mrs. Darlene Henry
Legislative Committee Clerk
Mr. Jacques Lapointe
Mr. Terry Spicer
Assistant Auditor General
Mr. Gordon Hebb
Chief Legislative Counsel
Department of Labour and Advanced Education
Mr. Jeff Conrad, Associate Deputy Minister
Ms. Laurie Bennett, Manager, Financial Services
Office of the Fire Marshal
Mr. Harold Pothier, Acting Fire Marshal
Ms. Anne Partridge, Senior Project Director
HALIFAX, WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 11, 2012
STANDING COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC ACCOUNTS
Ms. Diana Whalen
Mr. Howard Epstein
MADAM CHAIRMAN: I’d like to call the meeting of the Public Accounts Committee to order. I’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year, even though we’re a little bit into the month. It’s our first meeting of the new year for the Public Accounts Committee.
This morning we have witnesses with us from the Department of Labour and Advanced Education. Our subject today is the Office of the Fire Marshal, which was one of the chapters in the last Auditor General's Report, which was an area looked at.
To begin, I’d like to have the members introduce themselves and we’ll begin with Mr. Ramey.
[The committee members and witnesses introduced themselves.]
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much and we’ve been joined by Mr. Epstein as well, who has just arrived so good morning.
I’m going to turn the floor over, if I could, to the Associate Deputy Minister, Mr. Conrad. You can introduce your team and perhaps have any opening statements.
MR. JEFF CONRAD: Thank you very much. Good morning, thank you for having us here this morning. I do want to introduce the team. I have with me this morning: to my left, Harold Pothier who is the Acting Fire Marshal; to his left is Anne Partridge who is the project director on our response to the Auditor General's Report and I’ll talk a little bit about her role; and to my right, Laurie Bennett, who is our Manager of Financial Services. I do want to make a few opening remarks before we get to the questions and answers. Then, of course, we’re glad to take questions and try to provide some answers.
The Office of the Fire Marshal, through the Fire Safety Act, establishes and enforces standards for fire safety in buildings and for the safe storage of flammable and combustible materials. The office also advises various levels of government on fire-related matters, including issues of fire protection. Ultimately the Office of the Fire Marshal works with all of its partners to minimize the risk of fire.
The office currently has 14 full-time, dedicated staff who undertake significant activities to protect the public from fire safety risks. The office works closely with law enforcement agencies and other officials on fire-related investigations. We conduct inspections of buildings and we also audit the inspections that are conducted by others, as it relates to fire safety issues. The office also supports the activities of municipal fire inspectors and we’ll talk a little bit more about some of our work with the municipalities as we move through the morning, I’m sure.
I would like to take the opportunity to say a few words about the team that is sitting here this morning. As you know, it is standard practice to have a financial officer join us when we come to these appearances before the committee but I do want to say that not only is Laurie exceptional at the numbers and the financial part of what she does, but she’s very committed to the work of the department and the work of the fire marshal. So she has been a really important and valuable resource to this little team as we’ve moved through this project.
I mentioned Anne Partridge and I introduced her as the project director. I just want to say a few words of clarity about the difference between her role and Harold’s role in the work that we’ve undertaken. One of the things we recognized really early in the response to the AG’s Report is that this is a really significant project that we’ve taken on, in terms of changing the work and the culture and the approach of the Office of the Fire Marshal. We really needed to have two points of focus throughout the project, so we really needed to have someone focused on continuing to run the operation and have the technical expertise to run the Office of the Fire Marshal. That’s Harold’s role, we really needed somebody to help us run the project. Anne is a director in our department with significant financial and human resource experience but also significant project management and change management skills, so has been a really strong addition to our team.
In May 2010, Fire Marshal Robert Cormier, who had been the fire marshal in this province for 16 and a half years, retired and it was at that point that Harold assumed the role of Acting Fire Marshal. I guess one of the things I would say is that stepping into this role is a really huge challenge for Harold and particularly to step into the role and then go through the audit, and the response to the audit has been a really significant piece of work for him. I just really want to emphasize how much he enjoys the confidence of his colleagues, not only in the office, but across government.
We would recognize that one of the things that we need to work on and that we’re moving forward on is to staff a permanent fire marshal in the province and that is imminent that we’re going to be releasing that staffing action, but one of the things we really wanted to do was to have some internal expertise to help us get the position and the situation stabilized to really start down the road of having a really strong unit so we could recruit into an active and ongoing kind of role. We think we’re in a really good place to do that recruitment now.
The Auditor General’s Report released last May made 25 recommendations related to deficiency in four broad areas: the management of information is one we’re working on; monitoring of fire inspection activities in municipalities; issues around inspection, compliance and enforcement; and fire safety education. The report also highlighted that similar recommendations had been made in two previous reports and had not yet been followed up on. The 2011 report was pretty clear that stated that management was not providing the proper level of oversight, leading to what we believe are the majority of issues in the report. So experience has been that it has really been a management oversight issue and a tracking and monitoring issue and we’ll talk a lot, I’m sure, about what we’ve done to correct those things.
Addressing all the recommendations in the AG Report is a priority for the Department of Labour and Advanced Education. We’ve put together an action plan and our action plan addresses the issues, the recommendations, places timelines on our actions and ensures that we have the right systems and processes in place that will result in positive change. Addressing the recommendations became my responsibility as associate deputy minister at the Department of Labour and Advanced Education. I’m currently the acting deputy minister for another few weeks until our new deputy arrives, but in my regular role as associate deputy minister, the Office of the Fire Marshal reports to me and on this issue I report directly to the minister. We’ve been briefing the minister regularly and I’m responsible directly to the minister and the Office of the Fire Marshal.
With 25 recommendations to address and given the complexity and scope involved, it was really important to us to apply a strategic approach to how we tackled the work. We established priorities and we really thought it important to maintain a realistic timeframe of 18 to 24 months to take on this piece of work. One of the things we did is engage Deloitte to undertake an independent and critical assessment of our response, the action plan we established and the timelines we set. In its final report, Deloitte confirmed our project plan had covered the requirements, set the direction for change and stated that we are on target as planned. I believe there is a copy of that report in the material we provided for this morning’s meeting.
We quickly developed a priority inspection plan for elementary schools and hospitals in the province and we have been regularly updating publicly on our progress with that plan. We’ve compiled a comprehensive inventory of buildings as recommended in the report and have entered all of our information into the existing management information system that we use.
We also began monthly progress reports and we’re reporting regularly on inspection and investigation activities of the deputy fire marshals. We’ve developed performance standards for staff and put in place annual performance appraisal processes. We have drafted standardized inspection guidelines and a new record of inspection form, which includes a new inspection checklist. Those are a couple of the things we’ve provided to you in your packages this morning as examples of some of the kinds of work we’ve been working on. We’ll talk about some of the others as we move through the morning.
Some of the audit recommendations are longer term and we have put in place a more staggered implementation. For example, our information technology needs have been assessed and we’re exploring options for a suitable tracking option for the office’s activities. In the interim, we are tracking inspection investigation activities, monitoring and assessing performance and using the existing system we have, but one of the things we’re doing is having a good look at what the options are for us in the go-forward.
We’re also providing necessary training and support to deputy fire marshals who are out in the field or using the system that we have and engaging them in the future system that we’re looking for.
One of the things we’ve recognized is that municipalities in this province would be impacted by implementing the recommendations of the report. As a result, we tried to engage municipalities early on to seek input and to collaborate with us to determine how the office could better support and oversee the inspection activities that they have responsibility for. We set up a working group that has representatives of the Office of the Fire Marshal, the Department of Labour and Advanced Education more broadly and the Department of Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, as well as key stakeholders such as the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities, the Association of Municipal Administrators, Nova Scotia and the Fire Inspectors Association of Nova Scotia. That working group had their first meeting in November and are scheduled to meet again the first week of February and have really been quite engaged in this piece of work.
As part of that engagement, we’ve developed and circulated a questionnaire to all the municipalities in the province, to help us define what they believe and what we believe is an appropriate system of inspection, as has been recommended by the audit. We’re really pleased with the high response rate and the really positive feedback we’ve gotten to date from municipalities and our municipal partners. We’re currently working on analyzing what all the feedback is and coming up with a plan on how we’ll address that complex municipal question.
One of the things we’ve done is we’ve hired new deputy fire marshals in the Annapolis Valley area and the Cape Breton area, both since last June. As well, a number of other positions have been filled in the office, so for the first time in a number of years, all of our vacant positions in the office are now filled, so we are at full complement.
As noted in the audit, we continue to assess our operational requirements, including the appropriate level of resources, to ensure that our mandate and legislative requirements are met.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Mr. Conrad, are you almost finished?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: I’m almost done.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Okay, just checking.
MR. JEFF CONRAD. That brings us to where we are today. We committed to making each step of the process open, public and transparent. We have posted progress reports since we’ve started. We’ve inspected 50 per cent of the elementary schools and hospital inspections to date and we’re on target to finish by the end of March, when we said that we would be done.
We’ll talk a little bit about a piece of work we’ve done around the risk management framework and a piece of work that I’m sure will be of interest to you.
I guess I would close by saying that the risk of fire can never be completely eliminated. The Office of the Fire Marshal plays a key role in ensuring that buildings in the province are built and maintained to minimize the risk to the greatest extent possible. To achieve this, we work every day with stakeholders and partners in an organized way to try to standardize that.
Our goal is to continue to educate and encourage people in communities to inspect and investigate, to prevent fires, preserve life and avoid property loss due to fires. We are also working, of course, to ensure that any subsequent audits that we have will have significantly different observations and results from the last couple. Thank you for your time.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much. Of course we’re anxious to get to our rounds of questioning. We’re going to begin with the Liberal caucus. Mr. Colwell, you have 20 minutes.
HON. KEITH COLWELL: Thank you very much. As well, thank you for coming in today. I’d like to start this off by saying that any experience I’ve had with the fire marshal in my constituency, my constituency work has been very positive. The staff has been very professional, very helpful and, indeed, done their work very, very well.
I realize there are some issues with the Auditor General, which I will ask questions on, but I just wanted to put that on the record, to note that I appreciate the work you do in the field and the responses I do get from your office.
There’s a whole list of buildings I have here that require inspection, as of December 1, 2011. There are hospitals and community health centres, a whole pile of different schools, education centres, all kinds of places. How far along are you in the process of getting those inspections completed?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: Maybe I will make a quick comment and then I will let Harold answer in more detail. One of the things I would say is that the requirement for inspection is an ongoing requirement so it is constant that we are in places and that we are going back to those places on a regular responsibility. As I said in my opening remarks, in terms of hospitals and others we’re on track so that within a year from the release of the report we will be up to date on those.
With regard to the others, one of the things we have discovered in our response is that we were in many of those facilities on a very regular basis but what we weren’t doing very well was reporting that we were in those facilities. So I will let Harold make a few comments in terms of the process of getting around to all those places.
MR. HAROLD POTHIER: What we have done is designated a staff member to specifically deal with the inspections of the schools that are on the list and that list is over 50 per cent inspected and that work will continue. We are on target to complete that by the end of the year. The hospitals, we are well over 50 per cent on completing those inspections as well and we are on target to get those completed.
In addition to that we are also continuing an audit process in the schools and the hospitals of self-inspections that they conduct and we are going through that process on a regular basis and we will be releasing the report from 2010-11 on January 20th. That’s an audit that is done between the Department of Education and our office.
MR. COLWELL: During the inspections and audits you’re doing now, is there anything that is sort of outstanding or glaring that may not have been identified before - or maybe not documented before - that has or has not been corrected?
MR. POTHIER: No, the biggest item that we’re seeing is not a real fire safety risk, but it is a maintenance issue in regard to fire safety equipment that is installed in the schools that need to be maintained and the upkeep of those. We are working with the school boards and addressing those issues as we go through and do the inspections and the audits.
MR. COLWELL: When you identify something like that, for instance, how long would a school have to have their fire extinguishers inspected like we do in our office every year? A guy shows up and inspects them every year for us. How much time do they have to make the corrective action?
MR. POTHIER: Corrective action is generally done within 30 days or, because of other possibilities of impacts, they may require an extension which is based on the information provided whether an extension would be provided or not.
MR. COLWELL: An extension, of course, would be based on risk and a risk analysis.
MR. POTHIER: It’s done on risk. In some cases, it’s done on availability of product. Because of the work that’s being done, the market may not have enough product to complete those requirements, so we have to take that into consideration as well. In the interim, there may be some other fire safety measures that are put in place to offset because of the risks that are involved there.
MR. COLWELL: One of the things that the Auditor General said in the report is that it appears that the municipalities aren’t really taking seriously the inspection of the schools. They basically feel that they’re owned by the province and that’s not within their mandate. What has been done to correct that situation? I believe there is legislation requiring the municipality to do that. Is that correct?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: The Fire Safety Act designates that municipalities have a responsibility to inspect and, as I said in my opening remarks, we’ve had a really positive relationship with the municipalities. As you commented in your opening remarks, we work at a local level really closely with a number of partners in the community, including municipal fire inspectors. We do share responsibility. In the school system there is a responsibility for schools to do fire safety inspections and maintain books and then we audit the systems that they put in place. We’re in constant conversation with municipalities and municipal units around responsibility to inspect various premises and various responsibilities.
Certainly with schools, there is a responsibility for the officials in the schools to take some role there and we have some responsibility to do some oversight work with them as well. We’re kind of actively engaged in making sure that we have the right players doing the right work at the right time, to get those schools inspected in the ongoing future. We’ve done some good work with the Department of Education. I don’t know, Harold, if you want to comment on the work we’ve done there and some of the material is about to be released by the Department of Education.
MR. POTHIER: One of the things that was identified in the Auditor General’s Report is that we need to more clearly define what the system of inspections will be for the municipalities and that is part of the work that is being done with the municipality working group. With regard to the work that is currently being done in the audit is the school boards are required to perform a system of inspection on their premises. That is checked on an annual basis; 10 per cent of the schools are audited in each school board for compliance and a general overview of the work that is being carried out on administering fire safety within the schools. There are 16 points that are checked during that audit process.
MR. COLWELL: Through this process, there are some comments in there, too, that they may have to do some legislative changes in this process. Is that being looked at or is that required with the schools being inspected by the municipalities?
MR. POTHIER: Yes, we suspect once we get through the municipal review of the work that there may be some requirements to clearly define in the regulations what that system of inspection will be so that there is a clear definition of the work that’s required by the municipalities.
MR. COLWELL: Are there any penalties at the present time in the present legislation that your office could impose upon municipalities for not doing the work they are supposed to be doing by legislation?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: Within the legislation we have the ability to write orders, to issue summary offence tickets, to take people to court. There’s a number of opportunities for us to do that.
I guess with regard to municipalities, we don’t feel that we’re in that spot at the moment. Where we believe we are is that we have a lot of room to collaborate and work together. We’ve certainly felt a huge commitment from the municipalities, as well as from the municipal fire inspectors themselves, as a group, to work with us on improving the system.
One of the interesting pieces in the work that we’ve been doing is, I think sometimes there’s a bit of tension between provincial and municipal officials around issues like this, so we’ve been very, very direct with our municipal colleagues so far, around the work that we’ve been doing but have been pleasantly surprised by kind of the thirst on the municipal side for help in this area.
We don’t believe there’s resistance on the municipal side to get this work done, we don’t believe that it’s an issue of not being interested or not being as committed to the work as we are, it’s a question of role clarity, it’s a question of responsibility clarity, about getting the right tools in their hands, about having the right communications and relationships together. So we’re not in a place at the moment where we’re, in a broad sense, thinking about municipalities and needing to do enforcement activity. We’re really in a collaborative process of trying to move the issues forward.
MR. COLWELL: That would be the answer I would anticipate because I’m a very strong believer in the fire service we have and the work that your office does. I remember a long time ago when there were issues with first responders in my area at the time. The big issue was that everybody was doing their job properly but they couldn’t talk to each other. It was a communications issue and something that had never been addressed.
I’m sure this is the same sort of thing that you are talking about. I’ve a great regard for the fire service as well. They do a terrific job in our community and every place I’ve ever worked, they’re very professional and they’re very keen on the work they do.
When the findings are all finished with the inspections, are these going to be made public? Are they going to be accessible on a regular basis, so people have confidence that all the stuff has been done?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: It’s certainly our intent to continue to do public postings of the results of what we’ve been finding, our inspection activities, the progress we’re making on schools and hospitals, so we are committed, and in fact, part of our belief, in terms of making sure that the work we do sticks, so one of the questions I think people can justifiably ask is, well, we didn’t respond well in 1987, we didn’t respond well in 2001, what are we going to do this time to make sure that our response takes and we believe that the accountability reporting, getting back on track with annual reports of the Office of the Fire Marshal, those kinds of things are part of making sure that we continue to do the work we need to do, so yes, we are committed to that continued public accounting.
MR. COLWELL: Where would that be accessible for the public?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: At the moment, we reporting on our Web site so there is a link directly from the home page of Labour and Advanced Education to the Office of the Fire Marshal and then ongoing reports as to the work that we’re doing around the Office of the Fire Marshal and the Auditor General’s Report.
MR. COLWELL: One other thing; what are some of the indications that the fire safety public awareness campaigns are effective? I know that is hard to answer but are you getting any feedback or anything that it is starting to work - in other words, are people calling and saying, look, I saw your advertisement and I work in a school and there are no fire extinguishers, they are all gone, sort of thing? Is that sort of thing happening?
MR. POTHIER: We’ve had very little feedback from the buildings we’re generally in, other than the support saying that we know you’re out there doing your job because of the reports and the information that is coming through. We are taking any complaint that comes, or requests for information or what have you, and we’re investigating those situations.
Public education, we do have requests for that and we fulfill those needs for training for fire safety within hospitals and nursing homes, group homes, correctional facilities, and other agencies that are looking for that kind of training. We do provide some training in that area.
MR. COLWELL: Presently, where are your inspection records kept and who is managing those records now? That was an issue that was identified.
MR. POTHIER: We have a records database and we have employed an individual whose specific task is to manage that database to see that the information is entered into it, provide regular reports that the information is being entered into the system and what is actually being entered into the system.
MR. COLWELL: How many inspections have been done since the Auditor General released the report in May?
MR. POTHIER: We’re doing approximately 120 inspections a month since that time, that’s been recorded and entered into the system. In total we’ve done 937 inspections and 113 investigations.
MR. COLWELL: Are the 113 investigations related to the inspections or were they things that people had called in, like complaints?
MR. POTHIER: No, the investigations would be strictly fire investigations.
MR. COLWELL: So after a fire, you would do an investigation?
MR. POTHIER: That is correct.
MR. COLWELL: Are the number of fires in the province going down or increasing?
MR. POTHIER: That is something that is a part of this action plan to address. We don’t get the required reporting from the fire departments so we can’t really answer that question.
MR. COLWELL: So that is something that is going to be in place once you get the new system up and going?
MR. POTHIER: Yes it is.
MR. COLWELL: That would be interesting information to have because then you could really correlate that with the inspections you do and see how effective everything is; a really important measuring tool, I’m sure, that you’re anxious to get.
MR. POTHIER: Yes.
MR. COLWELL: Will there be quarterly reports, including updates on timelines of the implementation of the programs?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: Yes, that would be part of our commitment is that we continue to report on our Web site on a quarterly basis as to what kind of progress we’re making and those key activities that we’re achieving.
MR. COLWELL: Have you got enough financial resources to do the work you need to do? I know that’s always an issue in a department, especially when government is cutting back everything and I know public safety is very important.
MR. JEFF CONRAD: Absolutely, resources are an important issue in any department and we’re in difficult fiscal times so we’re all trying to address those. I guess I would say a couple of things and certainly Laurie is able to provide some detail if you’re interested in detail, but I’d say a couple of things. One, we have put, from the departmental resources, extra support into the Office of the Fire Marshal, so even within our internal departmental resources we’ve moved some monies around and put extra resources into the Office of the Fire Marshal in the current fiscal year and in the fiscal year coming to make sure that we’re at full complement, that we have the positions staffed up that we need, that kind of thing.
One of the things that I would say is that in terms of the response to the Auditor General’s Report and the action that we’ve taken, we are making fairly significant change to the way that we do the business of the office and we’re making fairly significant change in terms of some of the policies and processes that we follow. We’ve been saying consistently that one of the things we want to do is to fix the system and then resource to the level we need to run the new system. We don’t want to resource to run the old system and then change everything around. In fact, in some of the work that we’re doing, we think we’re actually gaining real efficiencies around the reporting and getting things into the system and being able to print reports and send letters, so we’re gaining efficiency, which gives us a place to reinvest in other places. Of course, as we progress further, for example, with the municipal work, we may find that there’s new work that we have to take on, so we’re kind of assessing as we go.
At the moment we’re quite comfortable that we’ve got the right level of resources in there for the work that we’re doing. We’re meeting our inspection requirements. This is about risk mitigation so we’re trying to reduce the risk of fires in the province and investigate those fires that do happen. There are certainly times, of course, if we have a run of fires and we get a heavy investigation load, which is pretty unpredictable, sometimes it creates a bit of a challenge for us in balancing that off with other things, but we have put a couple of extra people in the system; we’ve backfilled some positions. We’re feeling pretty comfortable where we are at the moment.
MR. COLWELL: Also, you have a Fire Safety Advisory Council. What role do they play in design implementation of the work plan? Is there any connection there? How does that work?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: In the Act there are two committees, there’s a Fire Services Advisory Committee and a Fire Safety Advisory Council. We haven’t used either one of those committees, in terms of developing the response to the action plan.
We do work pretty closely certainly with the Fire Services Advisory Committee and we’re meeting with those, in fact, later on this month, with our minister and the Minister of Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, to have a conversation about fire services issues in Nova Scotia, to not only the Office of the Fire Marshal but more broadly. They do give us advice and information and provide us with support, in terms of our work together, but we haven’t formally used them in the response to the Auditor General's Report.
MR. COLWELL: How often does this council meet? Do they have regular meetings?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: Maybe I’ll get Harold to say a few words about the council and the committee.
MR. POTHIER: The council is to advise on legislative requirements or changes for the Act and the regulations. There have been no changes coming forth so they’ve been relatively inactive. However, that is supposedly going to change in the near future because there will be some changes coming forward.
The Fire Services Advisory Committee deals with fire service issues and they make recommendations to the minister in regard to concerns that they have with the issues within the fire service. They meet on a relatively regular basis, two or three times a year, and they met just yesterday, in fact, and will be meeting again in April.
MR. COLWELL: How much time do I have left?
MADAM CHAIRMAN: You have just a few seconds - really, 20 seconds. Would you like to wait until the next round?
MR. COLWELL: Yes.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: All right, thank you, Mr. Colwell. The next round will be the Progressive Conservative Party and Mr. MacMaster, you have 20 minutes.
MR. ALLAN MACMASTER: Thank you, Madam Chairman, and thank you for being here today. It’s certainly a timely topic for discussion.
My first question - the Auditor General found that there was no inventory of all buildings that require inspections, and which inspections have been completed. How has your office been able to organize which buildings to inspect?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: That’s a really good question. I’ll actually let Anne talk a little bit on this one. A couple of things: We work closely with our other provincial departments to compile a list of buildings, so we now have a list of buildings, working with our other departments, that we’re responsible for inspecting.
One of the positions that I mentioned that we have now engaged is, we have a database administrator on staff who has been working with us, along with some of our admin support, to get all of those buildings into our system so that we can track and audit those.
One of the things we’ve been thinking a lot about is what we’re calling a risk framework - how do we make decisions about those buildings? Obviously with some of those buildings, it would be much more important to inspect on a far more frequent basis than others. Anne, in her role as project director, has been working quite closely on a piece around a risk framework, so maybe I could let Anne say just a few words about those kinds of decisions or on how we decide what would get inspected and in what order.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Ms. Partridge.
MS. ANNE PARTRIDGE: Thanks. So as Jeff noted, we have received and worked with our various government departments to get that list and actually met with them and with TIR. Things that we have to look at are, determining what frequency makes sense and then looking at the risk involved. We’ve developed a framework where, we would look at what the severity of the injury or the impact would be and then the probability of occurrence, to determine what frequency would make sense.
When you look at government buildings, just as an example, you would have everything that we own, from salt sheds and outhouses and things like that with TIR, to actually Access Nova Scotia centres where the public do frequent. What we want to do is rather than set a standard and say we’re going to be in there every three years or every five years, we want to really look at those buildings, take each building through that risk assessment - again I won’t go through all the details of the factors that would be considered - and say okay, looking at those two things in terms of risk, what would make sense in terms of how often we should be in there, so that we could more appropriately deploy resources to those buildings at the greatest risk but more frequently.
MR. MACMASTER: My next question - and I presume there was – was there concern in the office at the time, before this came to light, that there were a lot of inspections not taking place? Was there concern that public safety was being compromised?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: One of the things I would say that prior to the audit, we really have focused, in terms of the response to the audit, on the management oversight of the issue. I think one of the findings of the Auditor General was it was really difficult, if not impossible, to say what buildings had or hadn’t been inspected because of the maintenance of records and the issues around our ability to prove what we had done. When we went in and started to do some really close work with our staff and with our partners in this, one of the things we discovered quite quickly is there has been, throughout the whole period, really good, positive work at the local level with our deputy fire marshals being in facilities, being in buildings, making the inspections. In fact, it was kind of interesting, when we met with our partners from the Department of Community Services and were talking about some of the challenges we have, they were a bit surprised because for their licensing regime, they require letters from our deputy fire marshals to show they’ve been inspected. They had letters on their file showing inspections had been done that we hadn’t kept copies of on our files.
I guess what I’m saying is, the staff would say to you, Harold would say to you, I would say to you, that our belief is that our staff were out there, they were doing the inspections, they were in the facilities as required. What we were doing a very poor job of was tracking that and having the ability to show that and that’s really what we’ve been able to focus on over the course of the last number of months, is to really do a much better job in terms of understanding not only where we’ve been, but what we’ve found in those places and what follow-up actions are required.
We believe that public safety has been protected throughout, even prior to the Auditor General’s Report, but we would agree with the Auditor General that our ability to prove that has been very difficult.
MR. MACMASTER: Was there ever any communication to the minister’s office about resources? From what you just said, it almost sounds like the resources were there, it’s just that the documentation of the activity wasn’t happening as well as it could have.
MR. JEFF CONRAD: Obviously that’s a somewhat difficult question. I’ve only been with the department for not even two years as yet. I think throughout the course of this time there are constant conversations about resources in departments, as I’m sure you can appreciate. There is constant requirement and requests for extra resources so I’m sure that there were, through that period, conversations with at least - officially, I can’t speak to whether the minister would have been engaged or not, but certainly I think there were conversations with senior staff around opportunities and challenges and reallocating resources, the kinds of things we do on a regular basis. I would say that I think our understanding certainly was that the work was - as I say - getting done and we certainly failed to appreciate, at my level, the degree to which we weren’t tracking and doing that work.
One of the interesting responses in this is, you know, when you get a difficult Auditor General’s Report and you know you’re going to go in and make wholesale changes, you kind of anticipate some resistance back from staff; you anticipate people are going to feel very put upon that somebody has called their work into question. Our staff has been incredibly supportive around this work and really helpful and we’ve had some pretty frank conversations. I think sometimes there have been discussions about, you know, we can either do the work or we can track the work, and what we’ve realized is it’s not an either/or conversation.
We need to be able to do both and one of the things that we’ve been able to bring, as I say, is some of these efficiencies and systems we’ve put in place really are allowing us to do both - to not only do the work, which we believe we’ve been doing all along, but to track it and use the work and the information that we’re now generating to get better at the work. I think the example Anne just gave, understanding what facilities have been inspected and what the risk issues are so we can stop inspecting some facilities every year or every two years to focus on other ones that need to be inspected more frequently will really help us balance that workload.
MR. MACMASTER: Have there been any specific requests for additional resources to help on the tracking side?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: We have, since the report, made a number of requests and we have invested extra resources in the office. We’ve invested in the range of an additional $330,000 primarily in the area of salary into the office over the course of the last year to help us with that activity. In addition to that, of course, having Anne’s role as project manager, so we’ve been able to reallocate that within the department.
MR. MACMASTER: You spoke about creating more efficiencies. Can you explain some of the things that have been done to try to make the system more user-friendly for the inspectors, to ensure that not only can they do the inspections, of course, but also document what they’re doing so that you address the issues raised by the Auditor General?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: Absolutely. I’ll let Anne and Harold talk a little bit, but I’ll talk a little bit. One of the things we provided you with was an inspection checklist in your package. I think a couple of things - one, we’re trying to address a number of issues as we undertake this report, so certainly the issues raised by the Auditor General are the core of our work, but one of things we’ve realized is that as we move through, there are other issues that we’re finding that we want to build into a single response.
So in terms of efficiency of process, but also in terms of consistency of approach, when you don’t have a good, centralized system and you don’t have strong management oversight from the centre and, again, in the appropriate context, we really find that the deputy fire marshals out there who are doing excellent work are left on their own to develop their own systems and do things in their own way. One of the things we did very early on was to work on an inspection checklist. Maybe I’ll let Anne just say a few words about the development of that and also how we rolled that out to the deputy fire marshals, because I think the way we implement this is as important as what we develop.
MS. PARTRIDGE: That was one of the specific recommendations that was in the AG’s Report that we decided to tackle early on because we felt it would be the tool that the deputy fire marshals would be able to use. I think, as Jeff mentioned, a lot of these guys have been doing the job for a long period of time so they intuitively know what they should be looking for when they go in to do various inspections, but the issue was consistency and just ensuring that there was some documentation and some standards going forward.
What we did in looking at developing the checklist is, we got one of the deputy fire marshals involved, who actually just came to us in the last six months from one of the municipalities, who had done some work with checklists they were using there and really drafted something and ensured that we met with the fire marshals about it. We got feedback, we tweaked it three or four different times. Then in addition to developing the checklist itself, developed an operating procedure to go with it so that if the guys had the checklist in the file then they, in fact, knew what the expectation was in terms of when it was filled out, who copies were provided to and then in follow-up, when they were to report and track the information from the inspection on the system. That’s now actually on the form to verify that they are, in fact, doing that; so trying to monitor and assess in terms of those inspections going forward.
MR. POTHIER: In addition to the checklists, we have dedicated resources to manage that database for us. That database manager has been a big benefit to the staff that are in the field because of the issues that they have in connecting and getting through the system, to dedicate the resources and the time to assist them in the process.
MR. MACMASTER: I understand the position of fire marshal has not yet been filled because I believe you’re acting right now. I know that last May, one of my colleagues had asked the minister when the position would be filled and the minister had indicated by this coming May. How is that process going? Are we progressing toward that happening?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: In fact, we are. This afternoon, in fact, I have a meeting with our human resource folks to put into play the new job description that we’ve put in place for the fire marshal. Again, it’s not meant as an excuse for not getting it posted, but when you make these kinds of changes, we’ve done a number of things. We’ve significantly updated the role description; the role description hadn’t been updated. When you have somebody in a role for a long time - somebody was there for 16 years - the role description hadn’t been updated for awhile so we’ve updated the role description to be more appropriate for what we’re looking for.
We’ve changed the reporting structure. In previous organizational structures in the department, the Office of the Fire Marshal position was a dual position, which had responsibility not only for the Office of the Fire Marshal, but for other things within the system so it also had responsibility for some technical safety issues. We’ve split that out so we now have a dedicated - or are going to have - fire marshal responsibility and we’ve changed the reporting relationship so that fire marshal will now report directly to the associate deputy minister of the department.
So we’ve successfully done all of those things. We’re now at the position where I’m very hopeful that we’ll see posting of that job and an opportunity for Harold and other folks who might be interested in the position in the long run, to apply to that position and we’ll be able to put someone in place certainly by May but I’m hopeful, actually though, a little earlier than that. We’re very much on-track for that.
MR. MACMASTER: Thank you, and I presume the expertise - certainly Mr. Pothier is doing the job now - I presume there would be lots of expertise in our province to hire for that position, would that be safe to say?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: Well, it is an open and transparent hiring process, so we don’t predetermine who is going to win the job. There are lots of talented folks in this system in Nova Scotia, there are lots of talented folks, I’m sure, who will be interested in this position. It’s difficult to sit next to the guy who is acting and talk about some of his competition but Harold is very professional around this and knows the quality and calibre of the folks he works with. It will be an open and transparent process so I can’t commit in advance who is going to win or where they will be from, but we’ll certainly look for the best candidate we can find.
MR. MACMASTER: You mentioned earlier that a lot of the inspections were happening but they just weren’t being documented. The Auditor General’s testing found that 47 per cent of requested inspection files could not be provided. The Auditor General concluded that those inspections didn’t take place. Is that the case?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: I think the Auditor General is in a very difficult spot, when we are saying to him that we’ve been there, we’ve been there but there’s absolutely no proof. As I’ve said, certainly the conversations we’ve had, the work that we’ve done, the material that we’ve been able to find indicates that we’ve been in the facilities that we’re supposed to be in doing the work - not doing it as we’re supposed to do it, I will grant absolutely - but that we’ve been in those facilities.
We have not gone back and pulled every file that the Auditor General pulled, reviewed it, tried to verify or validate where we were or we weren’t in those, so there may well be places where, for one reason or another, we didn’t get in to a particular facility as timely as we should have and the process we should have, that kind of thing.
Given the scope and scale of what we found or what the Auditor General found in his response and what we found when we go in to do our response, we really felt it was most appropriate to take a forward look. So we could have gone back and really done a deep, analytical review of how we got here but we really thought that given the situation, what we really wanted to focus on is, how do we get to where we need to be?
So I think to be fair to the Auditor General, we respect his findings, we absolutely accept his findings but we haven’t gone back and double-checked to say oh, do we or don’t we agree on every one of those 47 issues. We accept that he found his findings and his findings are valid, based on the proof we were unable to provide and we’re committed to fixing that.
MR. MACMASTER: Do you think we have enough inspectors?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: Again, this goes back, I think, to the issue that we’re trying to mitigate risk, trying to reduce risk to the degree we can. We say all the time in our work that you’ll never eliminate completely the risk of fires in buildings in Nova Scotia. At the moment, we believe we have enough inspectors, particularly as we get the risk framework in place and done properly, and particularly as we get our partners working better with us and get us working better together. We have to work better with them - it’s not just them that has work to do. It’s us that has work to do too.
As we get the schools in place where they’re doing the appropriate work and we’re doing audits rather than direct inspections, we’ve had huge commitment from the Department of Health and Wellness. They’ve actually gone out and hired a professional on their side to help with inspections and worked with us, to make sure that the self-inspections they are doing actually meet our requirements, so that we didn’t have to duplicate that work, gave us some oversight of the work of their inspector that they’ve hired so we can make sure there’s an independent review.
We’ve had huge commitment to this so this really is an effort about all the partners, all the players pulling together. We think we’ve got the right number but we continue to monitor that on a regular basis and are prepared to respond if we discover that we’ve got issues.
MR. MACMASTER: When I picture the inspectors, I see them out in the field doing their work. I know now that you have somebody who is responsible for the database management. I presume you are starting to have better linkages between the people out in the field and the people in the office. Would that be the case and can you explain a little bit about how that’s working?
MR. POTHIER: Yes, we’re seeing great collaborative efforts on both the field staff and office staff, in working together to flow this material and the information that needs to be in the database and get it out to the clients that we serve.
MR. MACMASTER: Legislation requires that public schools be inspected by municipalities - I know my colleague focused some of his questions on this - every three years. I know there has maybe been some debate between the province and the municipalities as to who is really responsible for that. I know you mentioned earlier that I believe you’re going to try to maybe state it more clearly in the regulations or in the legislation to make sure that municipalities know that it’s their responsibility.
How is your office making sure that those inspections of schools are taking place, as required, and that any deficiencies are being addressed?
MR. POTHIER: Our office has attained that responsibility, and we’ll continue with that responsibility until we can get this system of inspections sorted out with the municipalities so that there is clarity of who is going to be responsible for them. We are leading that project at this time and we will continue to do so.
MR. MACMASTER: It sounds like you’re taking a more proactive approach, where you may even be contacting the schools and saying do you realize it’s time for an inspection. Would that be the case?
MR. POTHIER: Yes, it is. We have worked with the school boards and are carrying through with the 130-some inspections that need to be done within the year. Then we’ll continue on with that process in the following year as well.
MR. MACMASTER: With the resources you’ve been given by government, how many months will it take to bring all inspections of required buildings up to date?
MR. POTHIER: We want to continue on with the risk framework so that we can analyze and assess how frequent some of these inspections need to be done, and work with our partners in other departments so that we are all in agreement that based on the risk assessment, the tasks will move forward. Then we’ll move to put in the resources to carry out that mandate.
MR. MACMASTER: I know that’s kind of a hard question to answer because you’re just getting a handle on all the buildings and their status: if they’ve been inspected, if it has been documented.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Mr. MacMaster, your time has just elapsed. I think you’re about to have another question so I thought I’d catch you there. Thank you very much.
MR. MACMASTER: Okay, maybe I’ll come back to it.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: We’re going to turn it to the NDP caucus and Mr. Burrill.
MR. GARY BURRILL: Thank you. I was wondering if we could veer a little bit away for a few minutes from the question of the audit and think some about the health of the fire service in general, I’m thinking especially in areas like the ones that many of us represent, where the fire service has specific challenges to do with the fact that they’re volunteer fire departments.
One key concern/demand of the association of volunteer fire departments, as I understand it, which has been over some time articulated with the department, has to do with this matter you were speaking about, the role description of the Office of the Fire Marshal. The concern, as I understand it, is that the role of the fire marshal, as it has been constituted, doesn’t contain a great deal of responsibility - maybe not any - for the overall vitality, health and state, especially of the volunteer fire service around the province.
As I’ve understood the demand/concern to the department, it has been that in addition to the responsibilities that the fire marshal has had, there ought to be another position - I think it’s often referred to as a fire commissioner - and that what we need in the province is a person in a position of this sort, to whom especially volunteer departments would be able to relate and the whole myriad of concerns that are under that heading would be given there the kind of disciplined, sustained focus that the Office of the Fire Marshal is giving to some of these other matters that we’re talking about.
Can you say anything about the state of the department’s thinking about this proposal?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: Sure. You’re absolutely right in that the technical responsibility of the Office of the Fire Marshal is related to fire prevention, investigation and not related to what we would call fire suppression; putting out of fires does not fall technically under the mandate of the Office of the Fire Marshal, although obviously there are a lot of folks out there who hear the words ‘fire marshal’ and make the assumption that that’s part of what we do, but that is not, in fact, our responsibility. The responsibility or the ability to set up volunteer fire departments in particular, but fire services in general actually comes out of the Municipal Government Act. Under the Municipal Government Act with the Department of Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations is where municipalities have the ability to set up fire departments and fire services across the province.
That said, obviously there is lots of interaction between the Office of the Fire Marshal and local departments - both volunteer and paid services - across the province. Around issues of concern, we are engaged with them on things like fire inspections and fire investigations; in particular, fire investigations where they have a role to play with us. We do have this relationship. Harold spoke earlier about the Fire Services Advisory Committee. It’s a committee set up under the Act to advise the minister on issues related to fire services broadly. They have made a number of presentations to ministers over a long period of time around issues related to the volunteer fire service. I think it is fair to say that our minister is also the minister responsible for the voluntary sector generally; not just for the fire issues. I think it fair to say that volunteer fire departments are challenged by many of the things the sector is challenged by overall: recruitment issues are a challenge; retention issues; aging demographics; so their volunteers tend to be older - there are a lot of challenges around that.
I think also there are issues around a commissioner. The request to the government on a commissioner has been around trying to find an entry point into government. When you think about the voluntary, in particular, but also paid fire services in Nova Scotia, they’re involved in a huge range of activities in our communities, so they’re not only doing fire suppression, but often they’re doing emergency medical response - first responder, it’s called. They may be doing some form of rescue services; some of them have boats and backwoods vehicles and things like that. They’re doing issues around chemical/biological/radiology response teams, plus getting called to pump basements and rescue cats out of trees, all the traditional things we see in the funny papers, which is very true of what happens.
There has been a request that we consider some of the issues. We have done a number of things. One thing that we’ve done over the course of the last six months - since the co-chairmen of the Fire Services Advisory Committee met with our minister about six months ago and came in with a suggestion around some of the things we might work on; in governance we would class it as one, which they would talk about a commissioner, but in general this issue around how do we engage with government on some of our issues. So one of the things we’ve done is we’ve established an ad hoc deputy ministers committee, a round table, that we’re working with all of the government departments who are interested in the fire services issues.
We have put together a senior officials table under that deputy ministers table, which both Harold and Anne sit on, to get a group together and say, let’s start with an inventory of where are all the places where the Province of Nova Scotia intersects with the fire departments in Nova Scotia? What are all the issues that we jointly have on the table and how can we, as government departments, collaborate better on those issues and allow the fire service to engage with us in a different way?
We have just started that piece of work over the last number of months. The deputy ministers table has met two or three times and has another meeting come up next week. The senior officials group has met once and has another meeting come up very quickly. We’re meeting the two ministers - the Minister of Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, and the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education are meeting with the full advisory committee before the end of the month to have a conversation about, does that get us closer to the issue? Does that provide us with an opportunity for further debate, for further engagement? How can we move forward in a joint, supportive kind of way? I don’t know if that answers your question.
MR. BURRILL: Another related concern has to do with uniformity across the province of training opportunities. I think I’m right that when this concern has been raised through the Fire Service Association, a key part of the response has been, well, there is the deputy minister’s round table and this is on it. Can you say anything about where this concern is with the round table?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: Training is a constant issue in the fire service and the ability of departments to engage in training activities is impacted by a pretty wide range of things. There is a fire services training facility in Nova Scotia, which is based in Waverley, at the Firefighters School. They do a great job in terms of working with departments around meeting the training standards and working with departments on getting the training put out there.
Unfortunately one of the challenges, I think, on the training side is that we have a lot of rural departments, we have a lot of small departments. Their ability to send people to participate in that training can be very challenging, the distance that they have to travel. While the fire school does some off-site training, that kind of thing, some of the facilities, smoke houses, and some of the technical-type facilities that they have are pretty significant, so there’s a need to travel to those facilities.
Certainly with the deputy ministers round table group and with the Fire Services Advisory Committee themselves, I would say that training issues are one of the things that they’ve certainly raised with us as a major issue. I don’t know that we have as yet come to a defined answer on how we’re going to address all those issues but I would say that when the ministers meet later this month, they’re likely to hear that that training issue, as well as kind of the standard to which we train, is really significant.
I think one of the things we recognize is that like other - I don’t know if “industries” is the right word - but other places, these standards change significantly. I was saying to Harold that 25 or 30 years ago, when I was in the voluntary fire service, the standard for training to participate in a fire was pretty simple: you did only a couple of weekends at the fire school and you were good to go. Now the standard is three weeks?
MR. POTHIER: Well it’s three full weeks, almost 80 hours.
MR. JEFF CONRAD: Then you get into different kinds of combustible materials, different kinds of materials in houses, different kinds of framing, and different kinds of building codes. There’s a lot of material now that wasn’t there before. Those requirements change over time, which do require us and the service to think differently about how we meet those training challenges. It is a significant issue.
MR. BURRILL: Further to this matter about standards, as I understand the position of the association of volunteer departments, one of the key things, too, that they wanted to press to the provincial government is the need for there to be greater uniformity in the standard of service, as provided across the province.
I understand, too, the immediate response, as you said earlier, is this is a municipal matter. Yet I’m wondering in the department, as this ongoing position is put forward, especially from the rural parts of the province, and is debated at the round table, do you see any merit at all in this proposal, in this line of thinking?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: Around the establishment of standards?
MR. BURRILL: Yes.
MR. JEFF CONRAD: There’s no question that the discussion on standards has merit. This is not a conversation about merit or lack of merit. I think the conversation on standards that the fire service is interested in having with us is on the establishment of a specific set of standards that would apply to departments, whether paid or unpaid volunteer services across the province.
The standards conversation can be particularly difficult. It’s probably a standard that in many ways maybe the larger departments are able to meet but for really small departments in Nova Scotia, some of those standards will be very difficult to meet in terms of a challenge. So I think the standards conversation needs to be balanced with, you know, is it a single standard, is it a set of standards that are kind of pliable, depending on the situation across the province, what kinds of things would need to happen in order to make a set of standards possible?
There’s no question that there’s validity to the conversation but it’s not a simple response in terms of saying yes, no, we can go there or we need to go there right away. I think the governance question, the issue around responsibility does play to that because when you start to talk about a set of standards, you immediately get to conversations about enforcement and responsibility and those kinds of things. So it quickly moves to a broader conversation, a broader context.
MR. BURRILL: Thank you.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Mr. MacKinnon.
MR. CLARRIE MACKINNON: Thank you very much, Madam Chairman. I’d like to pursue the area that Mr. Burrill has already focused on, and that is the fire commissioner request. I have 13 rural volunteer fire departments in my constituency, plus the ground search and rescue, and there has been a request - not a demand - for a fire commissioner. I know that the Office of the Fire Marshal is doing a good job and is catching up on these report aspects from the AG and so on. However, in the annual report of 2010-11, the staffing was sort of 15 people, I understand, and the Deloitte report stated that your office was understaffed. Is there a possibility of the Office of the Fire Marshal doing the role of what departments want a commissioner to do or are we looking at an impossibility there?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: Again, we’re still in conversations around specifically what the interest is. I would say the role of the commissioner - as I understand the conversations that we’ve had with the fire service - is much more directly related to fire suppression than the role of the fire marshal. The role of the commissioner that seems to be of interest is to set standards, coordination, mechanisms and support services around fire-suppression issues, which currently aren’t in the responsibility directly of the Office of the Fire Marshal. The commissioner’s role would be fairly significant- and some opportunity, I suppose, to think that we might enhance the role of the fire marshal, but I think it is a different set of responsibilities than what we currently have with the Office of the Fire Marshal.
One of the things we’ve done in our work around the Auditor General’s Report is to do some jurisdictional review. As part of these things we have an interest in government in knowing that we’re not spending time recreating something that someone else has already invented, so we like to go out and do jurisdictional reviews and look for best practices that other jurisdictions have put in place and opportunities. What we find is that there’s a fairly significant difference across the country in the roles of fire marshals and fire commissioners and the degree to which they have responsibility for fire suppression. We’re not the only province where the fire marshal does not have responsibility, but certainly there are provinces where they have a full fire commissioner who has both the responsibility of what we would think of as the Office of the Fire Marshal and a fire commissioner.
One of the things in looking at that jurisdictional review that we’ve done is to try to get a bit of a sense of what’s the range of possibility? What are the opportunities? What does that look like? Certainly there has been some internal conversation around what is the understanding. Our current sense is that we could make good progress. We really do perform and give significant services to the sector, to the service, in Nova Scotia.
I think the comment was made earlier around communications, for example, by Mr. Colwell, around departments, ground search and rescue, and others being able to talk to each other. The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal provides what’s called trunked mobile radio so that all of those emergency service providers in Nova Scotia can now talk to each other, share common bands, communicate with each other on emergency scenes. We provide, through the Department of Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, capital cost grants on an annual basis to emergency service departments and others. We provide, through the Department of Health and Wellness, emergency medical response support and training and costs.
As we’ve started the piece of inventory that the senior officials group has started to work on - and we’re in very early days of that inventory - there really is a significant amount of support out there. What we’re probably not doing well enough is coordinating that and to make it accessible to the voluntary fire services in terms of the way in which we deliver those services. One of the conversations for deputies and senior officials is to talk about, how do we engage differently as a group? How do we work better - we use this language all the time in government - horizontally? How do we partner better with those groups and does that get us down the road of responding to some of the issues that are coming from the fire service?
MR. MACKINNON: This is absolutely no reflection on the job that is being done because I think you’re doing a great job with the resources that you have, but to go a step beyond what Mr. Burrill was saying, there are some department people around the province, some departments that actually feel there’s an interaction with several government departments and there is a question of whether the Office of the Fire Marshal would be better placed with EMO rather than in the current situation. Has that ever come to you?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: Not to be flippant, but I think probably any iteration that you’ve heard, yes, we’ve probably heard as well, in some form or another.
One of the challenges in government is always how do you best organize the work and then how do you cross over the silos that will result? So regardless of the position or the placement of the Office of the Fire Marshal, whether it was with the Emergency Measures Organization, whether it was - again, we’ve heard the conversation about well, you know, fire departments are created under the Municipal Government Act so the fire marshal should be with Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, or we should be placed with police because you do investigations. There are always these things that come forward.
I guess what I would say is that while there are certainly conversations, and I’m sure there’s opportunity to align differently and to align perhaps a little better in some vision, there will always be places, regardless of how you place any institution, whether it’s the Office of the Fire Marshal or any other division of government, there’s always a requirement to work across those lines. So if we place it with EMO, it’s still going to have to work with the Medical Examiner’s Office, it’s still going to have to work with police services, it’s still going to have to work with the Department of Health and Wellness if it’s placed in one of those other places.
Absolutely, there’s always room for conversation about placement and about relationship and about how you best position resources to get the most effective use. This conversation that we’re having about governance and collaboration will exist regardless of where the Office of the Fire Marshal might be placed, in my opinion.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: There’s just a minute left - you do have a minute.
MR. MACKINNON: Okay, very quickly. In Pictou County this week, in the news, a new building safety officer, working under joint municipal services, has been interviewed in relation to some people going back into buildings after a major fire without proper repairs being done: bad wiring, charred, very unsafe conditions. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that doesn’t happen and how can it be prevented?
MR. POTHIER: Following a fire incident, the fire service, once they’ve finished with the building, it then becomes a municipal responsibility, under the building official generally or a bylaw enforcement officer. In most cases in those situations it would be considered under the Dangerous and Unsightly Premises. In some situations the municipality takes and deals with those issues; in other municipalities they may or may not be involved, I can’t answer that. But under Dangerous and Unsightly Premises is generally where it falls.
We have seen municipalities where they’ve taken the effort, gone in and demolished the building because it was unsafe.
MR. MACKINNON: Thank you.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you, your time has elapsed. I’m going to turn it over to Mr. Colwell now. The last round will be 14 minutes each.
MR. COLWELL: Okay, thank you. I want to ask a few questions about the Deloitte report where it calls for the Office of the Fire Marshal to develop a more detailed project plan in regard to scope, resources, and timeliness. What is the status of these recommendations?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: I’m actually going to let Anne Partridge speak as she has been most closely aligned with our colleagues from Deloitte in terms of that report.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Ms. Partridge.
MS. PARTRIDGE: Thank you. The Deloitte report actually made four recommendations. Two of the recommendations really were around our project and our action plan, in terms of putting more detail around some of the bigger pieces of work that Jeff mentioned in his introduction related to municipalities, IT and policy work.
With respect to that, we’ve started to work with individuals who will be involved in helping us sort through those particular issues, looked at more detailed project planning, things that they suggested around accountability, timelines, so some really good suggestions around the plan itself which they actually set out in one of the appendices, I believe, in the report.
Other recommendations they made related to additional resources, and I believe they suggested another clerical position, as well as a fire marshal that would be dedicated to municipal inspections. As Jeff mentioned earlier, we filled a new position for a Clerk III who is the database administrator and working with the officers in the fire database management system, but really the issue around additional resources is still being evaluated.
The other piece that they made recommendations around was the risk framework. As we mentioned earlier, we have drafted a risk framework, we have met with our legal counsel, we have rolled it out with the fire marshal, so now the next step with that is really to share that with the Municipalities Working Group and the Fire Inspectors Association to get some feedback prior to that being implemented. We’re confident that we’re well on our way with the recommendations that they made.
MR. COLWELL: How far away do you think you are to having them completed?
MS. PARTRIDGE: I think the resourcing issue will be ongoing in terms of where we are at with that. The risk framework we’re planning to have rolled out before the end of the fiscal year. The pieces around the project plan are really iterative in terms of going back and updating that plan and monitoring where we’re at in terms of progress and assessing, which we’ll continue to update on a monthly basis.
MR. COLWELL: You’re satisfied that you’ll be able to meet the requirements that have been asked, except the resourcing issue because I realize that’s a budget issue that you have no control over?
MS. PARTRIDGE: Yes, we are.
MR. COLWELL: The budget for the Department of Labour and Advanced Education’s building safety, fire and technical safety between 2010-11 and 2011-12 increased by $22,000. Do you think this will be sufficient to respond to the recommendations made by the Auditor General and Deloitte to increase inspections, increase reporting, technical, administration needs and all those sorts of things?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: I thought we were going to get a question for Laurie - a really technical one, like you know, under line object such and such, why did you do this? (Laughter) I think one of the things that we have said earlier and which will show up more as we move into the public accounting and reporting of what happened this year, is that in addition to any incremental increases, what we’ve done is we’ve flowed additional resources into the Office of the Fire Marshal from other parts of the department. As the department operates through the course of the year, you can appreciate in a department the size of ours with over 500 employees, we often have little bits and pieces of projects that start late or an employee leaves and it takes us a couple of months to fill a job or whatever, which creates some opportunity for us to re-profile money. So in addition to any funds such as that, as I said earlier, in this fiscal year we’ve put something in the range of an additional $300,000 into the Office of the Fire Marshal.
We have a pressure already identified for next year, which we believe we have a plan that we can address to move some resources in. We have had ongoing conversations with our colleagues with the Department of Finance, and Treasury Board to kind of give them a heads-up that as we get through the course of 2012-13 and really have a good understanding of the roles that we’re laying out, the risk framework, our responsibilities and abilities to move things forward, we may want to have some more structured conversations about longer-term changes, but I would say that in the short term we’re quite comfortable that inside the department we have been able to move and we will continue to be able to move resources into the office to meet the needs.
MR. COLWELL: I’m going to ask sort of a different question. My colleague mentioned that the reporting process now is - when a deputy fire marshal goes on a site to do an inspection, does he have contact electronically to the main office so he can file his reports electronically or are they still all paper reporting?
MR. POTHIER: At the present time, because the wireless capabilities are not sustainable in all areas of the province, he can’t do it on-site, but he does have the capability from a field office to enter the information into our database system.
MR. COLWELL: Any schools would have wireless Internet though, wouldn’t they, typically?
MR. POTHIER: That still is an issue in some of the remote areas. With the equipment that we have, the database that we have, it has to be on their own computer system. They do leave a hard copy of an outline of the requirements and the individual who is accompanying them on the inspection is aware of what should be in that report.
MR. COLWELL: And that is given to them at the time of the inspection?
MR. POTHIER: Yes, it is.
MR. COLWELL: And then it’s taken back and whatever data entry - is that done by the deputy fire marshal . . .
MR. POTHIER: Yes, after that he has to file that report into the database. The database administrator will then generate a report and submit the report back to the agency or the client.
MR. COLWELL: Wouldn’t it be possible, with the technology today, to be able to do that with a laptop on-site, printed on-site, and then just simply downloaded when he gets back? It would save some steps and some time. I don’t know, you’ve probably looked at all this, I’m probably just asking some dumb questions.
MR. POTHIER: Those issues are being dealt with, the review that’s being done with the systems for gathering and tracking information.
MR. COLWELL: I find that the fewer times you have to enter this type of data, the less likely you are to make a mistake, number one, because it could be misinterpreted or whatever the case may be and the more quickly you can access it, it’s much easier to track it. How far along, technically, are you before you’re going to have some systems in that completely up to date, let’s put it that way?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: One of the things we have done is a fairly robust assessment of our IT requirements, so we’ve engaged a local consulting company, computer IT firm, to help us do an assessment of the requirement. Part of obviously knowing how to respond is knowing what we need. So we certainly do have an IT system in place and it functions and it does work for us and we’ve done some interim work to beef that up.
I would say that while we’re not leading-edge, by any means, in terms of where we are, all of our deputy fire marshals now - it’s another investment we have made over the course of the last year - do have laptops, all are able to do reporting from their laptops, to do that kind of work. It’s not kind of instantaneous, tablet-type access, the kind of thing that you’re talking about in terms of approach.
We’ve been meeting - Anne and others have met over the course of even the last week - to talk about the results of the assessment that we did. We’ve also done a bit of an assessment to look at other IT systems being used in the department and used in the provincial government, to look at whether or not there are efficiencies. There are lots of inspectors and other types of folks doing similar - not the same, but similar - work in government. Can we build on any of those efficiencies; can we do any work with them?
We’re just on the cusp of reaching some decisions around where we’re going to go. Obviously making the decision is step one and then rolling that IT platform out, should we make a change or make a significant upgrade to the system that we have now is a fairly significant project in and of itself.
I would say we’re probably - our commitment is that certainly by the end of the project, so we’re probably - over the course of the next six to 18 months going to make some decisions and roll out whatever we’re going to roll out for the new IT system. We’re well into the assessment discovery phase, assessing options, looking at opportunities before making some final decisions.
MR. COLWELL: When you’re going through this - and I know the answer but I’m going to ask it anyway - you’re doing a cost analysis on this, as well as an efficiency analysis, because oftentimes you have human resources requirements that you haven’t filled, and of course with budget restraints you will always have problems filling. Sometimes electronic equipment, if it’s designed properly and set up properly and used properly, can eliminate some human resource needs. Has that evaluation been done by your department?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: I guess I would say we haven’t done the specific - if we were to implement system A, you know, how many positions could we eliminate or, to be honest, I think “re-purpose” might be better language for us. We certainly have a commitment from the minister and from the department that the Office of the Fire Marshal we are protecting from the current budget and financial management exercise, so other parts of the department are contributing in different ways to make sure that we’re able to continue to put and keep resources in the Office of the Fire Marshal.
We haven’t done that specific level of analysis as yet. I think that one of the things we see - and Harold gave the example earlier - even in beefing up the current system we have and doing an interim approach and providing extra supports to the field staff that we have, really is a comfort and an efficiency around the use of the system. So I think your comment about the ability to do it quickly, the ability to do it wirelessly and avoid having to re-enter is appropriate, but I also think the comfort level that our staff have with the system and the supports we offer them to get more comfortable with the system also increases their efficiency around using it and eliminating errors.
I think we have, this new language - I’m not a digital native myself. I have to struggle some days with my computer, I can assure you, and some of our staff out in the field would be in the same situation. So as we said earlier, we’ve done some extra support, extra training, extra work to make sure people are efficiently and effectively utilizing the IT services which I think gets us down that road of what you are talking about.
MR. COLWELL: Yes, and I couldn’t agree more. I have the same difficulty with computers even though I’ve been using them for a long, long time.
Typically a really good system, I mean you’ve got a checklist that you use now when you do an inspection that’s pretty straightforward. I know that is straightforward but I’m sure you run into instances that are not straightforward that you have to document. The checklist itself would be so simple, it could go back to a system, the system could generate all the necessary letters or whatever it needs to document everything, hard copies that you would have to send back to wherever you have to send them and, indeed, reduce the labour requirements to get all this documented. You would know that it would be generated.
Then, in conjunction with that, you would have to have a quality assurance system that really gives the people in the field a sense of security with the system, too, so they know they’ve done it right. Is there any consideration of a quality assurance system, to make sure all this works?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: I can hear Anne over there saying, pick me, pick me, and I’m going to. One of the recommendations from the Auditor General really has been around a quality assurance, so it’s all well and good to put systems in place and to make these changes. We think we’re doing a pretty good job in terms of the rollout.
One of the things we’ve said fairly consciously is we could put a couple of people in a boardroom somewhere and write all the new policies, issue them all attached to one e-mail and say to everybody, do your job this way, effective tomorrow, and there, we’re done with the Auditor General’s Report.
We’ve been pretty conscious of saying that’s not how we want to roll this out. We really want to roll this out so that we incrementally roll things out, we give people a chance to adapt to each new piece, we do a bit of a workshop and training session on each new piece, we do a policy on how to use it and then we want to do some quality assurance work. So we’ve started to roll some things out, in terms of the material that we’ve been providing to our staff. Anne has been working with a group on quality assurance so maybe I’ll let her just make a comment.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: I’m afraid the time has elapsed just on that, unless Mr. MacMaster would like to hear the answer. Your time is beginning now, Mr. MacMaster.
MR. MACMASTER: Okay, thank you.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: I’m sure we all want to hear the answer.
MR. MACMASTER: Maybe he can slip it in in an answer to one of my questions. (Laughter)
My first question is, I know you’ve been trying to catalogue all the buildings out there that need to be inspected - how many would you say are outstanding now? These would be buildings that should be inspected, that there’s really no record - maybe they were but there’s no record of it. How many of those buildings would you say are outstanding?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: In terms of developing catalogue or actually getting to the inspections, is your question.
So we’ve developed the catalogue, we’ve got the buildings in place now. I think this goes back to the issue of - and I’ll let Harold talk about it. One of the things we need to do is, we need to get into this regular rotation of inspections, so as we track forward we won’t in one year catch up and be able to document every single one of those buildings because some of those buildings will be on a three-year cycle or a five-year cycle. So it will be a fairly significant period of time before we’ll get back because some buildings we’ll inspect twice because we identified them as a high risk before we ever inspect one of the others once, because we’ve identified it as a very low risk.
MR. POTHIER: Yes, each building will have to be assessed into the risk assessment framework that is done, to determine how often it needs to be inspected, based on the priorities in that risk framework. That work is in process and once we get through that, then we’ll be able to put the system in place, get the resources to carry through with it.
MR. MACMASTER: You mentioned earlier that I think you can do about 120 inspections per month?
MR. POTHIER: Yes.
MR. MACMASTER: So going back to my earlier question about how many months will we be looking at before all the buildings are inspected, everything is up to date - would we be looking at a couple of years?
MR. POTHIER: Again, it would go back to the risk framework. If the risk framework says a building doesn’t need to be inspected for 10 years, then it may be a 10-year period. If the risk framework, the far out end says that it is five years, then it will be five years, but we will work within that risk framework once it’s done.
MR. MACMASTER: So it’s hard to put a number on it.
MR. POTHIER: Yes, it is at this time.
MR. MACMASTER: I guess the other question I was going to ask was, has the office defined what constitutes a serious fire safety deficiency and has a system for follow-up and enforcement been developed?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: The risk framework actually gets us to that serious fire safety deficiency so one of the things we’ve recognized is that the serious deficiency is in the context of an overall framework of deficiencies. In developing a serious fire safety deficiency, we also needed to develop what would be ‘modest’ and ‘moderate’ and ‘serious’ and we also needed to develop a piece of work around what we would do in terms of assessing the potential frequency of those responses.
We mentioned earlier that before the end of the fiscal year we planned to roll out the new risk framework, and the risk framework will actually say in it those categories, so it will define based on things like building type, use, construction framework and that kind of thing - what we believe the risk levels would be for different buildings. As well, it would give some indication of what we believe the potential for an issue to be based on things like use, location and some of those other kinds of things. As part of the rollout of the new risk framework - which will happen before the end of fiscal year - that will be included in that definition of serious fire safety deficiency.
We’re going to roll that out and it will be speak in some level to the issue of response appropriate, so if we identify a serious deficiency that has a high frequency or high likelihood of occurrence, here’s how you need to respond. But we would recognize that once we’ve rolled it out and started using the deficiency list and finding some of the issues, we anticipate that we’re going to have to come back and continue to clarify that second part of your question, which is the required follow-up - how do we track that and monitor it and make sure that it’s getting done. Getting the tool in place is step one to being able to say, okay, now that we’ve got the tool in place and we’ve kind of trialed it - we have some information in there, we’re going to need to continue to refine that piece of work.
MR. MACMASTER: Just getting back to resources. I’m not 100 per cent clear if there’s a backlog or not in inspections, but it sounds like it depends on the type of building and the risk profile of the building, but would there be any benefit to contracting out inspection services to licence inspectors to get rid of the backlog, if there is a backlog.
MR. JEFF CONRAD: I guess your question on backlog, we don’t have in hand a list other than what we’ve done on schools and hospitals. We have regular buildings that we’re in and our high priority buildings for us - hospitals, nursing homes, daycares and some of the facilities that we’ve talked about in the management response. Again, our understanding in terms of the conversations with our staff in the field is that we’re actually in reasonably good shape in terms of our requirement; it’s around the documentation side of the work.
We haven’t at this point contemplated in a broad approach contracting out any additional work because part of the response to this is - we need to make sure that we’ve got our systems in place and our process in place so we know exactly what our expectations are and that’s part of what we’re doing in the response. I did mention earlier that in working collaboratively with the Department of Health and Wellness, they have made it a priority jointly with us to do some extra work around hospitals in Nova Scotia. There has been a call for proposal and the awarding of a contract with an individual consultant to do some work specific to hospitals. We’ve jointly agreed that the work that they’ve taken on - they’ve worked really closely with us. In fact, they’ve hired an ex-deputy fire marshal - a retired deputy fire marshal - to do that work. The work they’ve taken on, they’ve done it in a way that will meet the requirements of both departments, so there is some extra contracting in that sense, but not directly through the Office of the Fire Marshal.
MR. MACMASTER: I think one of the concerns of the public has been, if we’re using these buildings and if they’re not inspected - or they may be inspected but it has not been documented - in those terms, people may be concerned about the buildings they’re working in or using. Can you give the public some understanding of the number of deficiencies? Would you write summary offence tickets for buildings that may have deficiencies that cause risk to the public? If you do write those tickets or summarize those issues, what have you seen over the past year? Have you been seeing a lot of those issues?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: I’ll let Harold answer that, as it may be helpful to talk a little bit about - depending on the nature of the building - the type of inspection that gets done and then the kinds of things that we find in the various types of inspections.
MR. POTHIER: What we do in the inspection process is, the deficiencies that are noted are assessed and if the risk is there, we have three choices to work from. We can issue a report identifying the issues and work collaboratively with the client to address those. If the seriousness of the deficiencies warrants it, we can order the deficiency to be corrected within a specified timeframe and implement other fire safety measures to protect the safety of the public. In a very, very serious issue, we will order the building to be closed, vacated. So all of those assessments are done and actioned out.
If an individual decides not to comply with an order, then they will be charged through the legal process.
MR. MACMASTER: Have there been any buildings that you’ve ordered to be vacated this past year?
MR. POTHIER: Yes, there have.
MR. MACMASTER: Can you give us a rundown of which buildings?
MR. POTHIER: There’s probably been - right off the top of my head I can’t, but I can provide that. There have been two or three that have been vacated.
MR. MACMASTER: Were they buildings like the Transportation salt sheds or were they buildings like ones where there would be a lot of people frequenting during the day?
MR. POTHIER: Those are generally done through the municipality and working collaboratively with municipal agencies. They are generally buildings of a minor occupancy, a very limited number of people that would be in there. In several cases it’s residential environments, single-family dwellings.
MR. MACMASTER: Okay, thank you. I know that people working in your office, people working out in the field, they’re trying to, I guess, adapt to the new changes to better document the work they’re doing. What has the office done since last May to assure Nova Scotians that the buildings they frequent are inspected and deemed safe?
MR. POTHIER: Again, we are transparent and anybody who would like to review any of the reports, they can be accessed through the freedom of information policies and procedures. The buildings are being inspected, the documentation is there and the follow-ups are being followed through. If the building is deemed to not be safe then our office will take and require other fire safety measures to be implemented or the building to be vacated.
MR. MACMASTER: We wouldn’t want to be alarming people but if somebody had a concern about the building that they are working in, is there a way that a person could contact your office or having to go through the freedom of information Act just to find out a little bit more about the status of the inspection and if there are any deficiencies in the building that they may be working in?
MR. POTHIER: If we receive a concern or a complaint, that is assigned to an individual within the municipality - if it’s a municipal responsibility - or a deputy fire marshal to follow through with that complaint and then we follow through to make sure that they have carried that out.
MR. MACMASTER: Thank you. One of the recommendations, Recommendation 6.2, which starts on Page 120 of the Auditor General’s Report, it was about the fire department management system. There was a recommendation there that focused on the day each building was last inspected to the date when the next inspection is due, results of inspections completed, causes, origins and circumstances of fires. Have you been making progress with that particular recommendation?
MR. POTHIER: Yes, that is the database administrator’s responsibility and the field staff, to make sure that the information is entered in. At the time they enter a building, the frequency of their inspection is dated in there, so it’s automatically called up when it comes up again, whether it’s a follow-up inspection or it’s just put into the next regular inspection.
MR. MACMASTER: Okay, so you’ve incorporated that into the process now?
MR. POTHIER: Yes, it is.
MR. MACMASTER: Just a final question. Why have certain measures not been started, such as the implementation of policies and procedures to follow up on deficiencies identified during your office’s review of municipalities and the development and implementation of a plan to determine whether municipalities are currently complying with their legislative responsibilities?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: One of the things I would say is that when you look at the action plan that we laid out, what we’ve done is we’ve indicated when activities will be finished, rather than when activities will be started or engaged. So really across the whole 25 recommendations, some of them we believe are completed, but what I would say is that for all the others we have started and we’re engaged. On that particular question, I think we’ve spoken a number of times to our work with the municipalities and the work that we’re doing at this collaborative framework that we’ve established. We have a timeline in there of when we hope to be finished and when we hope to have a piece of work ready around establishing some of that work, but we are well down the road.
We’ve gotten really excellent co-operation both from the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities and the Association of Municipal Administrators, Nova Scotia in terms of wanting to work with us. They’ve both appointed excellent people to work with our group. People have great experience in this field. We’re really feeling very positive about that so we are making progress. We see municipalities making changes in anticipation of what is coming. We see them asking us for things so we’ve been asked to share our fire service inspection checklist that we’ve talked about. We’ve been asked to share our risk framework, so we know that there’s a huge commitment to getting that piece of work underway. It’s not that we haven’t started that work or made progress in that work; we’re just being careful in terms of our commitment of saying, we’ve got a big piece of work to do there collaboratively with another partner; we want to leave ourselves room to get that right so, again, when it rolls out it sticks. We’re well underway, but we’re just not there yet.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you. I’ll now turn the floor over to Mr. MacKinnon for the NDP. You have 14 minutes.
MR. MACKINNON: I want to stick with the need, or perceived need, of a fire commissioner. If a fire commissioner is not hired, can the role of the fire marshal or the Office of the Fire Marshal in fact be substantially changed to meet the needs of fire departments throughout this province? Perhaps a quick answer on that because I want to share with Mr. Ramey.
MR. JEFF CONRAD: I guess the answer to a ‘can’ question is, I guess it depends on the decisions that are made on the go-forward. What I would say is, we haven’t made a decision yet that that’s the appropriate place or that’s the place that we’re going to move in terms of the role of the fire marshal. We’ve been very focused on getting the role right in terms of the responsibility that we have now responding to the Auditor General’s Report; getting the new fire marshal in place to make sure that we’re really solidly operational there; and then focused on understanding the issues and concerns that are coming out of the fire services community. We certainly work closely with them and have a sense of that, but we’re focused on getting a more informed conversation there, getting a better sense of the government relationship. I’d say we’re a little ways away from making a recommendation or a call on what our suggestion would be in terms of how to respond to that broad range of issues that they’ve raised for us.
MR. MACKINNON: In response to where the fire commissioner or the Fire Marshal’s Office could possibly fit - and perhaps it’s in the very right place right now - we talked about EMO, municipal services, justice and the role with the Medical Examiner’s Office and so on. Dealing with the latter, I’m wondering if there has been any lobbying done in relation to a concern of departments dealing with the Medical Examiner’s Office where departments today are involved with many accidents? Sometimes where there are fatalities they have had to stay after others have left the scene for hours with bodies waiting for a coroner to be involved. It’s a concern that has been expressed repeatedly to me over the years. These are very traumatic situations sometimes, particularly we’ve had cases where children have been involved and it’s actually a post-traumatic stress situation after some of these situations. Is there any lobbying being done through the Office of the Fire Marshal to see that this, in fact, can be corrected?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: I don’t think that any of us should discount the incredible service provided by firefighters in this province in regard to the things you’re saying, so I think volunteer firefighters, volunteers in particular - obviously paid people, as well, but sometimes particularly on the volunteer side - step up to be members of the volunteer fire service and it isn’t always a deep appreciation of the kinds of difficult situations you’re going to get into as a result of this.
I would say that our office, in these conversations with other departments and with other divisions within government, regularly have conversations, pass along the messages that we hear. We try to provide some access for the service to provide their own messages. Certainly the fire service has their own inroads to various organizations, like the Medical Examiner’s Office and others. Certainly we’re not actively lobbying, it’s not our role in terms of working within the system, but we do make sure that kind of information is shared and understood.
I would say there’s no question, I come from a fire services family and my dad is a very long-standing fire service member in this province. I’ve grown up listening to those stories and being part of those family incidents when it’s late at night and someone is out beside the road with a car accident or whatever.
There are certainly challenges but you know that’s an invaluable service provided by fire services in this province, in terms of all of those incremental things they do besides just put out fires and protect us all from fire service issues, so we recognize it.
MR. MACKINNON: Thank you.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much. Mr. Ramey.
MR. GARY RAMEY: Thank you, Madam Chairman, and thank you for coming today. I’ve been listening with interest. Just a clarification first, there were 25 recommendations in the Auditor General's Report, correct?
MR. JEFF CONRAD: Correct.
MR. RAMEY: Just for my own clarification here, can you just mention again how many are in progress and how many have been completed?
MS. PARTRIDGE: The last update that we would have done would have actually shown that six were completed. I would say, as Jeff mentioned earlier, whatever the math is there, 18 or 19 are in progress. I think one of the recommendations was to actually complete the recommendations and to do what it is that the auditor was recommending, so there were actually probably 24 tangible recommendations upon which we had to act.
MR. RAMEY: Okay, thank you. The other question I have is - you know, we’ve been talking mainly about buildings, or we’ve been talking an awful lot about buildings and inspections, but it’s my understanding that you also have a responsibility for storage of combustible materials and flammable materials, that sort of thing. Can you just speak ever so briefly about that, in terms of are there issues around that or are we in good shape there?
MR. POTHIER: We’re in pretty good shape there. There are portions of the National Fire Code which outline the requirements for the storage and use of flammable and combustible materials. From our findings being out in the field, we’re in relatively good shape with the storage of those components.
MR. RAMEY: Okay, thank you very much. I’ll turn it over to Mr. Epstein.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Mr. Epstein.
MR. HOWARD EPSTEIN: Thank you, just a couple of quick points. A few years ago I ran across some writings by a fellow named Stephen Pyne. It seems that he’s an academic who specializes in fire. One of his books is called Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada. I read this book with a lot of interest but I was surprised to find that it was virtually all about forest fires and prairie fires and not much about buildings and problems in urban areas.
What this led me to wonder was the extent to which your office has interaction with those who deal with fires in rural areas that don’t necessarily directly affect buildings. I’m wondering where the locus of responsibility is for that, since surely - although earlier on, you draw our attention to the difference between inspection and standards and so on and fire suppression as a separate activity. Nonetheless, it seems to me that investigation and questions of prevention must also arise. What I wondered was to what extent there is interaction between your office and, I assume, officials in the Department of Natural Resources who would have responsibility for dealing with forest or grass fires?
MR. POTHIER: Our office really has no responsibility under the fire suppression direct operations for forest lands or grass fires or wild land fires. Most of that responsibility falls under the Department of Natural Resources and they work collaboratively with the fire service to provide some equipment for those particular fires. They also provide some other resources to the fire service for carrying out the activities in extinguishing fires, and supporting the Department of Natural Resources in those lines.
MR. EPSTEIN: What about investigation of outdoor fires? Is that something when they occur that you or your office would be drawn into as well?
MR. POTHIER: Again, if it’s not a building fire but a grassland or a forest fire, that responsibility lies with the Department of Natural Resources. They may, from time to time, call upon us for some expertise or specific assistance in the investigation, but generally we are not involved in one of those investigations.
MR. EPSTEIN: If we can just shift our focus briefly to the storage of flammable or perhaps explosive materials. I’m wondering if you can give us examples of the kinds of facilities or buildings that you have in mind and that your attention would be drawn to.
MR. POTHIER: We have convenience store gas bars; we have bulk plants; box storage facilities for gas, oil. Those types of facilities would fall under the mandate of the National Fire Code. We work collaboratively with the fuel safety section. They are responsible for propane and oil storage, equipment and what have you.
MR. EPSTEIN: On the subject of propane, one of the major events that I can recall took place in Toronto in the summer of 2008 when a propane storage facility actually exploded and one of the points that was raised in the public commentary around it was questioning why it was that such a facility was located fairly close to residential areas. I’m wondering whether there is anything in either your branch’s guidelines or rules that would address this or whether it’s left purely to the municipality to decide on the siting of such facilities.
MR. POTHIER: It’s my understanding that the municipalities are responsible for the planning, zoning and development within the municipal units, so they would be cognizant of the establishment of these and the sidelines or the setbacks that are required for the equipment to be installed. In addition to that, our fuel safety division would follow up on that to make sure they’re complying to the code requirements.
MR. EPSTEIN: And setbacks is, in fact, exactly one of the points I wondered about. I wondered if there was anything in any of the rules that your branch administers that would have to do with setbacks between an actual site where a flammable or explosive material is stored and any adjacent buildings.
MR. POTHIER: Under the National Fire Code, there are required setbacks for flammable combustible materials and liquids. There are even more restrictive setbacks for other commodities such as propane and gas. They fall under another jurisdiction, the fuel safety division, which is no longer our mandate.
MR. EPSTEIN: Whose mandate is that?
MR. POTHIER: It falls under the Fuel Safety division. It’s another branch within the department.
MR. EPSTEIN: Within your department, within the Department of Labour?
MR. POTHIER: Yes.
MR. EPSTEIN: Okay. Actually I think that wraps up our questions, thank you very much.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much, Mr. Epstein. With that, we’ll give a few minutes if you’d like, Mr. Conrad, to wrap up or any final statement that you might have.
MR. JEFF CONRAD: Thank you. I’d just like to say thank you to all the members for the great questions this morning and the opportunity to come in and talk about the work we’ve done. These Auditor General’s issues are always challenging for departments to respond to. I’m sure in this group everybody has heard the old joke that the two biggest lies are told the first day when the auditor says “I’m here to help,” and the manager says “I’m glad to see you.” (Laughter)
I really would like to say thank you to the Auditor General and his staff. They were incredibly supportive with us; they were very professional and impartial in their comments. They have given us a really important piece of work to do. We recognize the deficiencies that we had; we recognize the importance of addressing those. We’re working really hard at that.
I do want to say thank you. Harold sits here as the acting fire marshal, but obviously behind him is a team of incredibly dedicated people who are working very hard behind him and Anne to address these issues. Obviously on our side, our minister has taken a personal interest in this. She has been very actively engaged in this; she has really pushed us hard to take this audit seriously and to address it. We certainly have been providing her with extremely regular briefings and conversations; she is very committed to this.
The other thing I would offer as thanks is that we do appreciate your positive comments this morning and your appreciation that our local staff are there, they’re there to help the public, they’re there to engage with you and other partners in your communities to try to get at important issues. We are all about trying to reduce the risk and prevent the loss. That’s very, very important to us so we continue to be committed to that local level engagement, so thank you all very much.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much, Mr. Conrad. We appreciate you coming with your other experts and staff with you. Good luck with the rest of the recommendations, we’ll be looking forward to that completion.
Just on the matter of business, we don’t have any new business for the committee but we will be having a subcommittee meeting after this one. Next week we have an Auditor General’s morning, from 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 noon. We don’t have the opportunity to have the in camera one week and the public meeting the week after because we have out-of-town caucuses planned for the weeks of January 25th and February 1st, so we’re condensing it all into one week.
We will be here in this room for the presentation, so beginning at 8:30 a.m. we’ll have half an hour to review the report before we begin an hour of in camera, and then followed by a public session with that newest report.
With that, could I have a motion to adjourn?
MR. COLWELL: I so move.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much. We are adjourned.
[The committee adjourned at 10:58 a.m.]